Leon Worden

A Third-Grade History Cheat Sheet
** 2005 UPDATE **

By Leon Worden
The Signal
Tuesday, March 29, 2005

t's spring. You're the parent of a third grader. You're going nuts.
    It happens every year around this time. Third grade is when most elementary kids study California history, and here in Santa Clarita, many teachers compile a list of 20 or 30 or 40 historic places around town and instruct their pupils to go find them.
    It's a valuable lesson, intended to give the kids a hands-on (or, eyes-on) learning experience that no textbook can match. Santa Clarita is full of history — we had the first verifiable gold discovery in California, the first productive oil well and refinery west of Pennsylvania, some of the earliest movie making and, in 1928, the deadliest civil engineering failure in American history. There's nothing better than seeing the old buildings and canyons and rock formations first-hand.
    Unfortunately, it's a bad year for it. The recent rains have rendered many historic sites difficult and even impossible to access. I'll tell you where to find some of them, but top of the list is somewhere to avoid:
    • Beale's Cut. In 1862-63, Gen. Edward F. Beale, a veteran of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, won a contract from the county Board of Supervisors to improve the old wagon trail through the (pre-) Newhall Pass, deepening an earlier gash through the mountains to 90 feet.
    From the intersection of San Fernando Road and Sierra Highway, take Sierra south past Eternal Valley Cemetery. Keep driving; you'll go up a hill, and as you start to come back down the other side, look to your left. You'll see some old, damaged historic markers. Park there.
    GO NO FARTHER. I can't emphasize this enough. In the 1997-98 El Niņo storms, Beale's Cut caved in. It's half filled with dirt. In this year's heavy rains, it is extremely dangerous. DO NOT go through the opening in the fence. It is private property and you would be trespassing. DO NOT walk the path to Beale's Cut. It could cave in on you when you least expect it and kill you or your child.
    (Teachers, please leave Beale's Cut off your list.)
    • Oak of the Golden Dream. This, you can do. In 1842, Francisco Lopez was herding cattle in Placerita Canyon when he took a nap under an oak tree, dreamed golden dreams and awoke to discover nuggets clinging to the roots of some wild unions that grew beneath some nearby sycamores. So goes the legend; whatever its truth, the fact is, Lopez made the state's first documented discovery of gold in Placerita, six years before Sutter's Mill.
    To find the tree most commonly accepted as the one where Lopez napped — it's disputed — exit state Route 14 at Placerita Canyon Road and drive about a mile east. Enter Placerita Canyon State Park (which is still open despite state budget cuts, thanks in great measure to the tenacity of the volunteer Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates). Follow the trail to the west; about a quarter-mile hike will bring you to the oak (which narrowly escaped last summer's fires thanks to some miraculous work by our firefighters).
    • Castaic Junction. Where state Route 126 meets Interstate 5 was the location of Chaguayabit, an early Indian village, and the Asistencia de San Francisco Xavier, our outpost of the Mission San Fernando.
    The precise location of Chaguayabit isn't known — it might be where the Valencia Commerce Center is — and the 1804 asistencia no longer stands, but you can see where it used to be. From northbound I-5 exit at 126 and pull over to the shoulder at the top of the off-ramp. Look at Magic Mountain. Then look at the bluff just to the right. The asistencia was there.
    • Mentryville. This ghost town, three miles west of the Lyons-Pico off-ramp from I-5, was home to the oil workers who brought in California's first productive oil well farther up Pico Canyon in 1876. With the construction, you may need to follow the detour through the Southern Oaks part of Stevenson Ranch.
    Mentryville's a mess after the recent rains, but the area is tightly maintained by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, so if you follow the posted rules, you should be OK.
    • Pioneer Oil Refinery. With the first successful oil well came first commercially productive oil refinery. Built in 1874 and moved to its current location in 1876 (asterisk — a story for another day), it's the oldest existing refinery in the world — although its "existence" is in jeopardy. It was heavily damaged in the 1994 earthquake.
    To find it, take Pine Street west from San Fernando Road and go the equivalent of a block or two. If you reach the Newhall County Water District headquarters, you've gone too far. On your left are some businesses behind chain-link fencing. You'll see an entrance and a dirt road leading to the hills. Go along the dirt road (it's OK; the city has an easement) and park in front of the fence that says no entry. Ahead of you are some round brick structures with old metal boilers on top. You've found it.
    • St. Francis Dam. At three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, 12.5 billion gallons of L.A.'s water crashed down San Francisquito Canyon, killing at least 450 people by the time the floodwaters reached the Pacific Ocean south of Ventura.
    A flood of a different kind has rendered the dam site unreachable this year (7.3 miles up San Francisquito Canyon Road from Copper Hill). The road is closed.
    • Heritage Junction Historic Park. Located inside William S. Hart Park in Newhall, Heritage Junction is your key to the map of the SCV's historic places.
    Enter the main Hart Park entrance and bear left. Heritage Junction is home to several old buildings that were saved from the bulldozer over the years, including the Saugus Train Station Museum. Docents staff it on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and can answer your questions about the places you can't actually visit this year.

    Leon Worden is the president and CEO of SCVTV: Local Television for Santa Clarita. For photos and information about SCV history, visit scvhistory.com.

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